A Gifted Life

First sermon in the new series, “One Life.”

2 Timothy 1:1-13

fireplace-by-krazy79Right after I graduated from seminary, Jennifer and I took some time to work at a camp in Wisconsin before heading off to our first pastoral appointment. Honey Rock is Wheaton College’s outdoor center, and we went up there for the winter season to work with retreat groups and college classes that came in for a weekend or a week.

Now, winter in northern Wisconsin is like living in a freezer, and most of the buildings at the camp were heated by wood fireplaces and stoves. So, one of the major jobs we had every day was starting and stoking the fires in all the buildings the groups would use.

Jennifer was great at this. I stunk at it—always have. We didn’t light fires in the Army because in combat they tend to attract enemy artillery fire, so I hadn’t had a lot of practice. Now, I knew how to build a fire from my Cub Scout days. I knew about tinder and kindling and all that, but for whatever reason the fires I would try to light would take close to a whole pack of matches, lots of blowing, and uttering non-pastoral words in order to get going. Maybe it was a lack of patience due to the cold, maybe a failure to gather the right materials…I don’t know.

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Book Review: “The Jew Named Jesus”

jew-named-jesusI was at a lecture recently where New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III was talking to the audience about the formation of the New Testament canon. Ben made a comment about how important knowledge of the Old Testament and Israel’s theology is essential to understanding Jesus, to which an audience member responded with the question, “You mean we should think of Jesus as a Jew and understand Judaism in order to be clear about who we are as Christians?”

“Yes,” said Ben. “Duh!” thought I.

Growing up in the evangelical world we didn’t talk a lot about the Jewishness of Jesus. The Old Testament was primarily reserved for moralistic stories and lessons about biblical characters that we learned about it Sunday School and VBS. It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I began to see that understanding Jewish theology, practice, and worldview is essential to having a clue of what Jesus (and Paul, for that matter) was talking about and doing in the pages of the New Testament. Covenant, exodus, exile, resurrection hope, are all embedded themes that act like reflexive lenses through which to view the mission and work of Christ.

The work of N.T. Wright really influenced me in learning to use those lenses, and several trips to Israel have sharpened their focus. Opening up the Hebrew Scriptures alongside the Gospels and the Epistles was central to the early church, and it continues to be a critical need for us as well.


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Deliver Us from Evil

Matthew 4:1-11

test anxietyOne of the best things I discovered in going for my Doctor of Ministry degree was that there would be no tests for any of the courses—only papers (lots and lots of papers). That was really good for me, because writing papers is fairly easy for me. Tests, on the other hand, have always been a major source of stress, ever since I was in kindergarten and Mrs. McCandless would give out smiley faces if we finished our Weekly Reader exercises correctly. I still remember the one frowny face I got because of a math problem. It scarred me for life.

As I went through school, I found that standardized tests are the worst, especially those with multiple-choice answers. I would get so anxious in taking the test that I would over-think the answer. “Well, technically the answer is B, but it could also be A under certain conditions, or C if that’s the answer they’re looking for.” The questions with possible answers like “A and B” and “All of the above” and “None of the above” about gave me a nervous breakdown. To this day, I still have nightmares about showing up for a final exam in a course that I forgot to attend all semester.

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Book Review: “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson

brysonEvery once in awhile something pops up on Facebook that intrigues me after having waded through the usual political rants and videos of cats doing algebra (or something like that). A few weeks ago I noticed that book publisher Doubleday was offering a chance for those who blog or otherwise add our verbosity to an already crowded cyberspace to receive an advance reading copy of Bill Bryson’s upcoming book One Summer: America, 1927. Having been a Bryson fan since spitting my coffee across the table while laughing out loud (the real kind of laughter, not the LOL kind) at his memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods, I jumped at the chance to enter the Facebook contest to land the book. Last Friday, quite unexpectedly, the book arrived on my doorstep (thank you, Doubleday!).

One Summer: American, 1927  isn’t a laugh-out-loud sort of Bryson book, but there are moments of wit (“For Warren G. Harding, the summer of 1927 was not a good one, which was perhaps a little surprising since he had been dead for nearly four years by then.”). Instead, Bryson offers us a snapshot of one of the more intriguing summers in American history, where celebrities were truly larger than life (Babe Ruth) and began to learn how to wrestle with worldwide fame (Charles Lindbergh). It was the summer when Al Capone ruled Chicago, but probably never beat anyone with a baseball bat (a la The Untouchables). Talking pictures were the hot new thing at the movies, while the lights of Broadway began to fade while New York was captivated by the ’27 Yankees; arguably the best team in baseball history. It was a season of salacious tabloid murder cases, an epic Mississippi flood, and the rise of the capable but irritatingly vain Herbert Hoover. Prohibition was in force, but not the practical law of the land for the public whom the U.S. government essentially tried to poison in an attempt to keep the nation dry.

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Forgive Us as We Forgive

How many times should I forgive? As much as we have been forgiven…

Deuteronomy 15:1-6; Matthew 18:21-35

reginald denny beatingDuring the LA riots over the Rodney King verdict in 1992, truck driver Reginald Denny unknowingly swung his 18-wheeler into the middle of the crowd, where he was dragged from his truck and viciously beaten within an inch of his life. The attack ended when one of the assailants took a concrete cinder block and smashed it into Denny’s head, causing 91 fractures of the skull. Some witnesses to the attack managed to get Denny back into his truck and took him to the hospital.

After a painful recovery, which has never been a full recovery, and after the trial of his assailants, Reginald Denny met face to face with one of the men who had beaten him, shook his hand, and forgave him. A reporter, commenting on the scene, wrote, “It is said that Mr. Denny is suffering from brain damage.”

On October 2, 2006, a troubled milk truck driver named Charlie Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse andamish-school-shooting-dd11c818a9fade0b shot ten little girls, killing five of them, before turning the gun on himself. The world stood amazed when the Amish community then surrounded Roberts’ wife and children and extended forgiveness to him, even attending his funeral. The world looked at this and said something like, “Well, they’re Amish. They are a little strange anyway.”

Brain damage, strangeness—that’s how the world viewed these events because forgiveness—especially in cases like this—isn’t rational, according to the way our world works. We expect something else—retribution, revenge, or at least a lawsuit to settle accounts with those who have wronged us. Someone who forgives such a wrong has to be brain damaged or naturally weird.

When most people think about forgiveness, it looks more like the story about the grandfather of writer James Thurber. When he was on his deathbed, Thurber’s grandfather was asked by his minister, “Have you forgiven all your enemies?” “Haven’t got any,” said the old man. “Remarkable!” the minister said. “But how did a red-blooded, two-fisted old battler like you go through life without making any enemies?” Grandpa Thurber explained casually: “I shot ’em.”

We don’t make a lot of movies about forgiveness. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never said, for example, “I’ll be back…to forgive them.” We don’t immediately think about forgiveness when the neighbors do something heinous, when that guy cuts us off on the highway. We don’t immediately move to forgive those who have wronged us, caused our lives to be turned upside down.

And yet, Jesus tells us to pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

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